In Search of Namibia’s Desert Lions – TOSCO Sponsor Field Trip 23-26 April 2014

Does Dr. Stander ever sleep? We met him after sunset, somewhere in the middle of the Palmwag Concession. We had driven all day, and so had he. But while we set up camp and prepared our dinner, Dr. Stander made for the next hill, to listen for lions via the radio system. He came to our camp fire for a chat and when we went to bed, he went back to the hill to continue listening for lions. Whereas we bothered about breakfast the next morning and had to break up camp, Dr. Stander drove off in search of the lions.

Researching desert lions in the Namib obviously is a dedication, not a job.

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Dr. Stander’s research vehicle on a hill – listening for lions

These famous, unique Namibian lions were all but extinct end of the 1980s. Today, about 150-200 of desert-adapted lions live in Namibia’s Kunene region again. Closely associated with their come back is Dr. Philipp (Flip) Stander who has been researching them for the past 16 years. His website www.desertlion.info, which he updates almost daily, allows us to follow the lives of some of the desert lions and to profit from the wealth of information Dr. Stander has compiled with his research.

From 23-26 April 2014 a group of TOSCO sponsors had the opportunity to experience this dedication first hand. This was a rare chance and a unique privilege for a lucky few. For vehicles marked with a TOSCO sticker, Dr. Stander will make time for a chat about his work if he happens to meet one in the field. But he had now agreed to allow the group of TOSCO sponsors to accompany him for 2 days !

TOSCO Trust has been supporting the Desert Lion Conservation Project since TOSCO was founded in 2012. Actually the very reason why TOSCO came into existence was the realization that if the desert lions are to have a future, the tourism industry that profits so much from them, must contribute to their conservation.

Dr. Stander explained to us that our mission would be to fit a lion of the Obab pride with one of the GPS collars TOSCO had sponsored. Some lions of this pride are already equipped with a radio collar, with the help of which we would try to locate the pride. However, as we were to realize, tracking lions with radio collars is a mission.

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Dr. Stander radio tracking lions
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The beauty of the area the lions live in

You have to listen to the annoying noise of the radio system all day – that basically sounds like the radio in your house when it does not find a channel. You have to be able to pick up faint changes in the signal once you come closer to the lions and have to be able to interpret this – sort of like listening to signals of aliens in the depth of space. On plain land that would be comparatively easy, but the desert lions live in this beautiful wild land of the Kunene region, where grassy plains take turns with impressive mountain ranges, canyons and rolling hills. The lions could be close, but the signal is blocked. Or you know you are close, but the terrain is inaccessible.

When we entered the Obab pride’s territory, Dr. Stander stopped on each prominent hill because from there it is best to pick up signals. But there was no signal. It had not rained here and the zebras, the lion’s favourite prey, were somewhere else. Not one single tail was in sight.

Rain is erratic in this part of Namibia – one valley can be green, whereas a few kilometres on there is only barren land. Game moves with the rain. And as we learnt, this can be a problem for the lions. Their prey somehow knows where it has rained, moves and suddenly all the lion food is gone. In this situation, the lions might resort to eating livestock. A desert lion can easily go without food for 2 weeks and can survive up to two months (!). But for a lion in this situation a donkey or cow crossing its path is of course irresistible.

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The drone – fascinated by technology

To find out, where in this area it had rained, Dr. Stander now has a highly useful tool, a drone. He sent it into the air and used the pictures it took to determine where it had rained and where we might have to go to find the lions. And indeed, after some driving Dr. Stander picked up a signal. That night, the Obab male almost got a GPS collar.

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The Obab male lazing under a salvadora bush

We had ample time to observe him lazing under a Salvadora bush. But the lion suddenly got up as if on a mission and Dr. Stander could not get close enough to dart him. We instead made camp in the dark, enjoyed the desert night and Dr. Stander’s camp fire stories. When we went to sleep Dr. Stander went off to try and find the Obab male again.

The next morning he told us that he had not found him again. So we decided to focus on the lionesses of the Obab pride. We found their signal but the inaccessible terrain made it impossible to get near them. Lions move. If we had not been there with him, Dr. Stander would probably have taken another route around the mountains that were in our way. These lions walk vast distances during the night. Dr. Stander’s research has shown that they can move up to 70 kms in one night. An Etosha lion might only cover this distance in a week. The desert lions have to cover ground to find their prey which is far dispersed and sparse. Thus, chances are that they could be in a different, more accessible area the next day. But we did not have that time. A change of plan was necessary.

The Barab pride was close and Dr. Stander knew that they must have cubs, which he had not seen yet. So our task was now to check on them. Picking up the signal was easy this time. Dr. Stander soon found the place in the Barab river, where they had to be. However, we drove right past them without seeing them! We only realized that later, when Dr. Stander who had remained at a higher up lookout point told us. Did we see some lions in the end? Yes! 12 of them! 9 cubs and 3 lionesses – what a treat!

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Can you spot the lions?

And what a good prospect for the desert lion population! We learned that if the cubs survive the first months, their chances of survival to adulthood are pretty good. The only real danger in this area is shortage of food and thus death of hunger. Infanticide (male lions killing another father’s cubs) is contrary to common belief very rare. The Barab pride is a young pride and the only really stable pride in the desert lion population. An unnaturally high mortality rate of male lions due to trophy hunting has led to the unnatural situation that most prides do not have a resident male. But this pride has, and even two of them! The fathers of these cubs are Geronimo, who has recently received a collar sponsored by TOSCO, and his coalition partner.

But once the cubs reach adulthood and leave the pride, then there is another danger: humans. Most desert lions get shot or poisoned sooner or later, when they come into conflict with humans and their livestock. The area the desert lions live in is in large parts not a protected area. Still, Namibia’s Kunene region is the only place in the world where a free ranging lion population is still increasing! This is only possible if the local people and  the lions can somehow live together. Thus TOSCO aims at supporting the management of human-lion conflicts.

When it became dark, we had to put up camp again and were dying for some food. Dr. Stander remained with the lions and joined us for a chat later. And as always, when we went to bed, Dr Stander went back to the lions into the pitch-dark desert night.

Join TOSCO and become part of the community that cares for Namibia’s wild places https://tosco.org/support/. Thank you!

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Desert night

Text and pictures by Barbara Wayrauch

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